Making Government Work

Why America Needs Rebels To Tackle Its Challenges

October 23, 2014
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Why America Needs Rebels To Tackle Its Challenges
2010 PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows are pictured. John Santerre
Speakers from the PopTech 2014 conference talk with NationSwell about what the rebellion theme means to them.

The thinkers and doers who are drawn to discussions on social impact are likely growing tired of words like “innovation” and “disruption.” But what about rebellion?

That’s the theme of the 18th annual PopTech conference (which ran from Oct. 23 to 25), a gathering for people who are applying new ideas to big challenges in Camden, Maine. PopTech 2014 is bringing together artists, scientists, and – yes – innovators by providing support to high potential projects, developing a corps of fellows, hosting labs and salons to accelerate impact and curating an annual ideas conference.

NationSwell talked with some of the people who will take the PopTech stage about what rebellion means to them and why it matters for America.

NationSwell: Why is rebellion needed to move America forward?

Dan Barasch

“The fact that U.S. culture has been so defined by rebellion since its inception is also the key to its leadership in culture, business and social progress.” — Dan Barasch, founder and executive director of the LowLine, who rebels by insisting that government act in the social interest by supporting an urban park in an abandoned trolley station in New York City.

Jessica Lawrence

“We are still struggling with core issues of injustice – from disparities in wealth to a structure for conducting business that leaves too much collateral damage in its wake. These challenges would certainly benefit from rebellion.” — Jessica Lawrence, executive director at NY Tech Meetup, who says she rebels by questioning what might be taken for granted and instead asking why. “It’s not that every existing rule or system is wrong, but that when we never ask why or never ask if it could be done differently, we end up often unintentionally accepting systems and rules that cause harm and injustice and that don’t support the wellbeing of society.”

Parker Palmer

“Opposing what’s wrong is a halfway measure at best. A rebel must also have a vision for something better, a strategy for moving toward that vision and a capacity to rally and join with others in achieving it. If the anger that drives rebellion is not transformed into the hope that inspires movement communities, it will do more harm than good.” — Parker J. Palmer, founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal, who tries to encourage others to “transform anger into hope and action and become the kind of rebels we need,” in part through his book “Healing the Heart of Democracy,” which includes actionable ideas for how to reclaim the idea of “We the People.”

Joe Palca

“We seem to be in an era where bad ideas gain powerful constituencies and persist. So rebellion, in the sense of breaking down the status quo, may be the only way to achieve meaningful change.” — Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR, who says his work rebels against the idea that science will present the solution to all of our challenges. “Yes, science will contribute to human health and economic prosperity, but providing clean drinking water and adequate sanitation for every living person will do far more to improve global health and prosperity than any medical breakthrough.”

Krista Tippett

“I would like us to have at once a more generous and reality-based understanding of what we mean by rebellion, what rebellion has looked like, how it has actually effected change, because that gives us a more generous and reality-based view of our own potential … What we’re doing at the moment that may not be overturning the system but is part of long term meaningful change.” — Krista Tippett, host of the social enterprise and public radio program On Being, who rebels in the ways she explores what it means to be human. “I rebel against the idea that we are not ready and willing to carve out room for deep thinking and long form ideas and contemplation,” she adds. “A lot of the work we have to do in our time has to do with dwelling with questions and rebelling against our short term thinking that we have to fix everything or call a debate or take a vote or declare ourselves a failure.

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NationSwell: What do you see as the most cutting edge solutions when it comes to bridging the opportunity divide, advancing national service, making government work, or preserving our environment? And how is rebellion a part of what makes them work?

“I think where the cutting edge solutions are popping up are in the communities where people are taking action, not waiting for a massive rebellion, but just starting to rebel in their own corner of the world.” — Jessica Lawrence

“The tools for achieving things like preserving the environment or closing the opportunity gap exist already. They are not magical. What’s needed is leaders willing to embrace those tools and convince others to do so as well. Leaders should lead, not follow the polls.” — Joe Palca

“One of the reasons I’m excited and hopeful about this generation and this century and the work ahead is I feel like people now have this commitment to connecting inner life with outer life and investing something in reflection and in their sense of integrity and purpose. And I think that dual investment and that real insistence on authenticity and on living what you believe in could be a real contribution that really makes rebellion in this age something that brings us forward.” – Krista Tippett

Inspired to Rebel? 

These PopTech speakers defined rebellion as reinvention, explaining that for many of the national challenges we face, sometimes the best response is not to break the mold but instead to build something better.

“We have to create new forms that work in human terms to address the great challenges of our time,” Tippett says. “The act of rebellion is this generative thing of saying okay we are going to create the new reality that we see needs to be in this world.”

Looking to rebel yourself?

  1. Start small, trying something as simple as changing the way you do something.
  2.  Look for examples of fearlessness that inspire you to shape the future.
  3. Consider what you have to offer and where you can generate the most synergy.
  4.  Identify a cause you believe in more than you fear how others will judge you.
  5. Bring others on board with you in your rebellion.

The value of a conference like PopTech comes in part because it helps those who are carving new paths to work together to lay a foundation for a better tomorrow. Even if you aren’t able to join the conversation in person, consider joining the #poptech social media conversation, learning from the rebels who will be gathered in Camden, Maine, and sharing your own ideas to move our country forward.

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